Peter Foster @pmdfoster Europe Editor of the Daily Telegraph. Formerly based in Washington DC, Beijing and New Delhi. Opinions my own. Nov. 05, 2018 3 min read

The #Brexit tunnellers are tunnelling in pursuit of that elusive crock of gold - a deal.

What are they trying to finesse? How are they trying to close a deal? Here's what I know after chats with both sides. 1/Thread

As we all know, "it's the backstop, stupid" that is the problem.

But more specifically, how long the backstop lasts, and whether the UK can ever leave it.

This is the crux of the matter. /2

Last week was a big step forward, with the EU tentatively agreeing to write an all-UK customs arrangement *into* the Withdrawal Agreement.

So not a promise to do this in the future, but an operable text that requires no subsequent additions to function. /3

That allows May to guarantee 'no customs border' in Irish Sea - tick!

Even so, it leaves Northern Ireland in full CU + SM for goods, and GB in a 'bare-bones' CU - that means frictions 'Dover-Calais' and more checks across Irish Sea than now in scale, and probably scope /4

Per UK June 7 technical note (worth re-reading, link below) the UK will stay in this arrangement "until" the trade relationship delivers on the joint commitment to no return to a hard border in Ireland. /5 

Which is a problem, because both of May's proposals (the dual-tariff thingee and the 'max fac' trade exemptions + technology) have been shot down.

So there is a serious risk of the UK getting stuck in an inferior, open-ended Customs Union.

Which brings us to the nub /6

How can the UK be sure that it can ever leave?

If the UK wants the right to quit unilaterally (per @DominicRaab as I revealed today) 
it will not be a backstop.

As @simoncoveney and @WeyandSabine were forced to repeat today. /7

Which is also why the EU wants it's 'backstop to the backstop' which would leave Northern Ireland in the EU's customs territory and SM for goods alone.

This (as the AG has warned) would be illegal, which in turn would remove UK ability to quit the All-UK customs backstop /8

Which is why the UK needs to get rid of the NI-only backstop, or the 'backstop to the backstop'

This MIGHT be possible, EU sources say, but only if the UK gives Ireland sufficient confidence that it won't cut and run from the first backstop. /9

My understanding is that Ireland would consider giving up the NI-only backstop in those circumstances - at least that is expectation of EU officials, UK officials and several member state dips I speak to. @DanielBoffey at the Guardian also reports today he hear same. /10

So this is where we get into a judgment call on the Irish side.

The EU accepts, per my sources, that "some kind of wind-down mechanism" will be needed to help UK exit the backstop.

But it will need to operate by joint agreement. /11

So it will NOT be unilateral...but it might, for example, have a unilateral escalation mechanism.

Is this a) enough for brexiteers b) enough for Irish to say, 'OK, go on, drop the NI-only backstop' (which by the way, a lot of member states accept is pretty much unsignable) /12

So that's the see-saw we are on.

The harder brexiteers push for a 'unilateral' exit clause, the less likely it is we get a UK-wide backstop (only) in the Withdrawal Agreement.


Drop that NI-only backstop, agree a UK-wide CU backstop - and bingo, deal.

Whether DUP/ERG can swallow? Different Q. /14

Of course, all of this is stuck because it's hard to see what trade/future deal can deliver on the Irish border question....

If it all goes wrong, it will be because this question was never honestly addressed. /15 ENDS

ADDENDUM - so as I typing that thread, seems like @theresa_may and @campaignforleo were having the exact same discussion :)

You can follow @pmdfoster.


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